Bill Belichick is always looking forward, on to the next challenge.
“Ready for the playoffs,” he said last week. “That’s what you work all year for — to get to this position and be able to compete in the postseason. We’re excited about it.”
But we can’t forget about the events that led us to this place, either. The Patriots finished 2014 in the same place they always do – atop the AFC East for the 12th time in 14 years, with a 12-4 record, the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, and a lot of hype about making the Super Bowl in three weeks.
Before we move ahead to Saturday’s divisional playoff game against the Ravens, let’s review how the Patriots performed this year on offense, and where they stand entering the playoffs:
Starts: Tom Brady (16), Jimmy Garoppolo (0)
Position analysis: Reports of Brady’s demise were greatly exaggerated, and the Patriots are still in great shape at quarterback. He was named a Pro Bowler in 2014 at age 37, showed signs of getting more athletic, not less, and with his recent contract restructure, is primed for a new extension in a year or two if things keep going well. Garoppolo is still the insurance plan if events turn sour, and as a late second-round pick, he won’t cost much to stash on the bench for three or four years if need be.
Player analysis: Brady showed no signs of slowing down, posting better numbers than in 2013 almost across the board. He threw more touchdowns (33 to 25) than last year, fewer interceptions (9 to 11), had fewer sacks (21 to 40), a higher completion percentage (64.1 to 60.5), and a higher yards-per-attempt (7.1 to 6.9), while throwing for his seventh career 4,000-yard season (4,109 yards). On the downside, Brady finished 20th among quarterbacks in yards per attempt, and he still struggles to complete the deep pass, hitting 17 of 60 passes of 20-plus yards for 431 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. But his 2014 season can only be viewed as an unmitigated success. After struggling in myriad ways in the Patriots’ first four games — with his accuracy, decision-making, and field vision — Brady took off in October, throwing 18 touchdowns against one interception in a five-game stretch and leading the Patriots to seven straight wins overall. Brady also showed tremendous improvement in his ability to avoid the pass rush, and added a few big scrambles to his repertoire. It’s not often you see a 37-year-old quarterback work so hard to improve a negative aspect of his game. One worry of note: Brady threw seven interceptions over the final eight games.
Garoppolo played 69 snaps on the season – 35 in the finale against Buffalo and 12 in the blowout loss to the Chiefs — and finished 19 of 27 passing for 182 yards and a touchdown. He displayed good footwork, accuracy, and pocket presence, but he didn’t play enough to make any true evaluations.
Starts: Shane Vereen (16), Stevan Ridley (6), Jonas Gray (6), LeGarrette Blount (5), Brandon Bolden (0), James White (0), FB James Develin (10)
Position analysis: Individually, none had a banner season. Gray’s 412 rushing yards are the fewest for the Patriots’ team leader in the Super Bowl era. And the Patriots only had three individual 100-yard games — two by Ridley and Gray’s 201-yard effort against the Colts. But as a whole, the running backs were solid. The Patriots were middle of the pack in rushing yards per game (108 per game, 18th in the NFL), and they only ran the ball 40.8 percent of the time, but they ran effectively enough to set up the play-action passing game, which was devastating this year. And they ran the ball when they needed to, such as in wins over the Vikings, Bengals, and Colts. Entering the playoffs, the Patriots have the luxury of being able to play the hot hand — they have a good 1-2 punch in the power run game with Gray (who we think is the best running back on the team) and Blount, and have Vereen as the third-down and change-of-pace back.
Player analysis: Gray had 412 yards and five touchdowns on 4.6 yards per attempt, and sparked the running game after Ridley’s injury with his decisiveness and impressive ability to always fall forward and gain additional yards. Vereen had 391 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 4.1 yards per attempt, and also had 52 catches for 447 yards and three touchdowns, making him the first Patriots running back since Kevin Faulk in 2008 to have 50 carries and 50 catches in a season. Ridley was effective in stretches before getting hurt, finishing with 340 yards and two touchdowns on 3.6 yards per attempt in a contract year. And Blount finished with 281 yards and three touchdowns on 4.7 yards per attempt after Pittsburgh let him go in November. Bolden was used mostly on special teams and played just 72 snaps on offense this year, but he showed some good moves in limited action, rushing 28 times for 89 yards and a touchdown. Develin was a solid lead blocker and a contributor on special teams, and gave no reason for the Patriots to replace him next year. White only got nine carries for 38 yards as a rookie but should see an uptick in playing time next season.
Starts: Brandon LaFell (16), Julian Edelman (14), Danny Amendola (16), Brian Tyms (1), Aaron Dobson (1), Kenbrell Thompkins (2), Josh Boyce (0)
Position analysis: This unit was very top-heavy, with solid production at the top but not much depth. LaFell and Edelman were excellent complements to Rob Gronkowski, but the rest of the positional group didn’t contribute much. The Patriots’ haul of rookie receivers from 2013 turned out to be a flop, and Amendola was once again a big disappointment in the second year of a five-year, $28 million contract to replace Wes Welker. Don’t be surprised to see him become an offseason salary cap cut as the Patriots try to find a better No. 3 receiver.
Player analysis: LaFell signed a modest three-year, $9 million deal in the offseason after spending the previous four years in Carolina, and was one of the biggest surprises in the NFL. LaFell set career highs with 74 catches, 953 yards, and 7 touchdowns despite starting the season with zero catches through two games. He had two 100-yard games, vs. Kansas City and Chicago, had 97 yards and two touchdowns against Buffalo, and posted at least four catches in each of his last six games. LaFell was a great possession receiver with his 6-foot-3-inch height, showed surprising speed on his 56-yard touchdown run, was an excellent downfield blocker, and only dropped five passes in 119 targets. LaFell also played the most snaps of any offensive skill player (81 percent) and didn’t miss a game. Edelman also was reliable and tough in his second season as the Patriots’ primary slot receiver, playing 71 percent of snaps. He caught 92 passes for 972 yards and four touchdowns, with a 141-yard performance against San Diego and eight games with at least 80 yards receiving. Edelman also had 445 yards after catch, 11th-best among wide receivers, but his 11 drops were tied for second-most at his position, and he missed the last two games of the season with a concussion. But there was a big dropoff after the top two. Amendola only played in 40 percent of snaps on the season — boosted largely by playing in Edelman’s place in the final two games — finishing with 27 catches for 200 yards and a touchdown. Amendola was good on kickoff and punt returns and solid as a downfield blocker, but the Patriots didn’t get much bang for their buck out of Amendola. Tyms flashed big-play potential with his spectacular 43-yard touchdown catch against Buffalo, but couldn’t get on the field for more than 15 snaps a game. Dobson, last year’s second-rounder, was a massive disappointment — he missed almost the entire offseason following foot surgery, was inactive for seven of the team’s first nine games, then pulled his hamstring against Green Bay in November and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season with three catches for 38 yards. Dobson will be given a chance to make the team next training camp, but the Patriots won’t hesitate to cut him if he doesn’t perform. Thompkins was cut after Week 3, given that he was beaten out by Tyms and didn’t contribute much on special teams. Boyce, last year’s fourth-round pick, was saved by his practice squad eligibility. The Patriots called him up in Week 17 and he could be used as a kick returner in the playoffs.
Starts: Rob Gronkowski (16), Tim Wright (14), Michael Hoomanawanui (16), Steve Maneri (1)
Position analysis: The Patriots are in good hands with Gronkowski signed through 2019 and Wright for another year at a minimum salary. They might never have a pairing like Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez again, but Wright showed potential in his second NFL season. But given Gronkowski’s injury history, the Patriots may want to draft some insurance at some point.
Player analysis: Playing in 15 games for the first time since 2011, Gronkowski led all tight ends with 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns, while finishing fourth in catches (82) and third in yards-after-catch (460). His performance earned him a unanimous All-Pro selection. Most impressive was he played in 73 percent of snaps after suffering a significant knee injury last December. Add in his often-dominant blocking and his highlight reel plays — the one-handed catch against Denver, the catch-and-rumble touchdowns against Chicago and Indianapolis — and Gronk should be in the short discussion for league MVP. Wright took over at the No. 2 spot after being acquired in a trade for Logan Mankins in late August, and was mostly used as a slot receiver. The coaches didn’t use him a lot — only 31 percent of snaps on the season — and he only caught 26 passes for 259 yards. But at 6-4 he gave the Patriots good height in the red zone, and caught six touchdowns, third-most on the team. Hoomanawanui played 42 percent of snaps as the primary blocking tight end but was very inconsistent in run blocking and pass protection and might be in danger of losing his roster spot next year. Maneri was signed as insurance at the end of the year, and gives the Patriots another blocking option for when they go heavy on the offensive line.
Starts: LT Nate Solder (16), RT Sebastian Vollmer (15), LG Dan Connolly (13), C Bryan Stork (11), RG Ryan Wendell (12), G Jordan Devey (5), G/T Marcus Cannon (4), G/T Cameron Fleming (4), G Josh Kline (3)
Position analysis: When all five starters are in the lineup, the offensive line is serviceable. But if one unit can prevent the Patriots from reaching the Super Bowl it’s this one, which was downright terrible through the first four games of the season, pulled things together during the middle portion of the schedule, but struggled down the stretch against some tough defensive fronts in Green Bay, San Diego, Miami, the Jets, and Buffalo. The line had significant communication issues at the end of the season that led to some easy sacks. Brady’s sacks were cut from 40 to 21 this year, although he certainly deserves a lot of credit for avoiding the rush and throwing the ball away. Don’t be surprised to see the Patriots draft at least one guard high this spring.
Player analysis: Vollmer was by far the Patriots’ most consistent lineman, allowing only one sack in his final six games and handling some excellent pass rushers from Detroit, San Diego, and Miami. Solder took a step back, to the point where some are questioning whether the Patriots will pick up his fifth-year option (they have until March to decide). Solder allowed 6 sacks and 23 hits/hurries, struggling to handle speed rushers coming around the edge. Rookie Stork missed most of training camp with an injury and took a few weeks to get back to speed, but he stabilized things when he joined the starting lineup for good in Week 8. Helping him was having two ex-centers playing next to him – Connolly and Wendell. Neither played at an exceptionally high level, but they were able to help Stork call out the protections and solidify the interior. Devey was an unmitigated disaster at right guard, earning a spot on the bench after five games, and he might not be back next season. Cannon was also a disaster at left guard, though it was his first time playing there and he received very few snaps in training camp. Cannon was used as a sixth lineman on a few dozen snaps after getting benched, but didn’t do much better. The Patriots’ decision to give him a two-year contract extension looks curious, although perhaps with a full offseason of work he could fit in at guard or at least give the Patriots depth at tackle. Kline did OK in spurts, but he was completely overpowered by the Jets and Bills in the last two games, as was rookie Fleming, who was used occasionally as a sixth lineman but missed four games with an injury.